The recently completed athletic year isn’t one East Carolina fans are likely to look on with warm and fuzzy memories.
There were some highs, to be sure, including yet another football victory against an in-state ACC rival, this time N.C. State, and Zay Jones’ record-setting pass catching performance.
A third straight American Athletic Conference men’s swimming title in coach Rick Kobe’s final season before retiring and a stirring Senior Night victory on the baseball diamond also stood out as highlights.
But let’s face it. Those accomplishments notwithstanding, the best thing that can be said about 2016-17 from the Pirates’ perspective is that it’s finally over.
So instead of looking back and lamenting all that went wrong, the time has come to turn the page and begin looking ahead to fall and the new seasons to come.
It already figures to be better, if for no other reason than the expected improvements to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium scheduled to begin shortly after the Pirates’ final home football game on Nov. 18 against Cincinnati. ECU’s new women’s lacrosse team will also make its debut.
But there is also hope that the Pirates’ fortunes on the field of competition might also take a turn for the better.
That’s especially true in football, where Scottie Montgomery has had a full season to grow into his first head coaching job and his players should now be more comfortable with his expectations and schemes.
A dramatic turnaround won’t be easy against a nonconference schedule that has been ranked by USA Today as the most difficult in the country and a typically tough AAC slate. On the positive side, the bar isn’t going to be set unreasonably high after mustering only three wins a year ago.
How much improvement ECU ultimately shows in 2017 will likely depend on the contributions of four graduate transfer free agents that have been added to the roster to help buy some time for Montgomery’s young recruits to grow into starring roles.
Running back Tyshon Dye not only gives the Pirates’ pedestrian running game a boost, but he also brings a championship mentality from having been a member of Clemson’s national title team in 2016.
Defensive end Gaelin Elmore comes from Minnesota to enhance a pass rush that recorded only eight sacks in 12 games last year and Eastern Michigan’s Austin Barnes helps fill the void left by the graduation of punter Worth Gregory.
Former Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk, if he can stay healthy, gives ECU a proven dual-threat veteran presence under center and in the huddle.
Like the football team, both the Pirates’ men’s and women’s basketball teams will feature an abundance of new faces as they look to end their respective streaks of losing seasons. The big difference is that unlike Montgomery in his second year of a rebuilding process, coaches Jeff Lebo and Heather Macy won’t have the luxury of patience on their side.
Lebo, in particular, is likely to be coaching for his job.
He might not have survived the previous campaign had he not missed most of the AAC schedule following his surgery. Now pain-free, he said he’s ready and motivated to lead a turnaround.
But for that to happen he’s going to need to replace his entire frontcourt and make up for the loss of promising freshman wing Elijah Hughes, who left the program to transfer to Syracuse.
The Pirates still have a solid backcourt nucleus around which to build in leading scorer Kentrell Barkley, a healthy B.J. Tyson and rising star point guard Jeremy Sheppard, along with Hawaii transfer Isaac Fleming.
The big question is whether holdover big man Jabari Craig is ready to make a major jump, juco 7-footer Usman Haruna is able to step in and make a meaningful contribution or if Virginia Tech transfer Seth LeDay is eligible to play without sitting out a season.
On the women’s side, the turnover is even greater with only one of the team’s top five scorers — Khadidja Toure — returning from last year’s 11-19 squad that lost six seniors. In an effort to return her program to the winning ways it enjoyed before leaving Conference USA for the much-more-competitive AAC, Macy is bringing in a whopping nine new players.
It’s a haul that includes four juco transfers, a graduate transfer and another transfer that sat out last year under NCAA rules.
Of all ECU’s highest profile teams, the one that stands the best chance of bouncing back strong from its 2016-17 disappointment is baseball.
Coach Cliff Godwin will miss leaders like Evan Kruczynski, Travis Watkins and Eric Tyler, along with his top recruit MacKenzie Gore from Whiteville, who will never arrive on campus once he’s drafted in the first round this week.
But the dugout is hardly bare thanks to a solid group of holdovers, led by freshman All-America Spencer Brickhouse and young arms Trey Benton and Jake Agnos.
And after a season in which everything that could possible have gone wrong did go wrong, the Pirates are due for a few breaks.
Then again, after a forgettable 2016-17 athletic year, what ECU team can’t say the same thing?